Body Counts and Paramilitary Ties in Colombia

Latin America and the Caribbean

Yesterday, the National Security Archive posted four declassified documents on its website showing that the U.S. government was aware since 1994 of allegations that members of the Colombian military frequently collaborated with paramilitary groups, and killed civilians to present the bodies as dead guerrillas. The documents describe the Colombian military's use of "death squad tactics in their counterinsurgency campaign," and the persistence of "body count mentalities, especially among Colombian army officers,"(pdf 1) which fuel "human rights abuses by otherwise well-meaning soldiers trying to get their quota to impress superiors" (pdf 2). Cooperation with paramilitary groups, according to one 1997 document (pdf 3), had gotten "much worse under Del Rio." The reference is to Gen. Rito Alejo del Rio, commander of the Colombian Army's 17th Brigade in northwestern Colombia, recently arrested for his earlier alleged collaboration with the murderous militias. The most amusing document, however, is a U.S. Embassy cable from February 2000 that discusses a slip-up between the ACCU and the Colombian Army, in which both tried to claim responsibility for the killing of two demobilized guerrillas. According to this document (pdf 4), "The ACCU (which witnesses say kidnapped the two) claims its forces executed them, while the Army's Fourth Brigade (which released the bodies the next day) presented the dead as ELN Guerrillas killed in combat with the Army." When it became apparent that both groups had claimed responsibility, the bodies of the two demobilized guerrillas disappeared from the morgue. Colombia's Semana magazine published an article by National Security Archive Colombia Analyst Michael Evans detailing the history of the so-called 'false positive' scandal and the findings from each declassified document. Evans ends his article asking:

While recent steps to cleanse the Army's ranks of officials associated with the policy are welcome, they are clearly not enough. What are the facts? Who is responsible? How long has this been happening? Who are the victims? And where are the bodies buried? Declassified U.S. documents can provide some clues, but it seems unlikely that we will learn the answers to these questions unless the Colombian Army declassifies and releases its full report on the 'false positives' scandal. Until then, it seems, secrecy and impunity will continue to prevail over transparency and justice in Colombia.

The article can be read in full in English on the National Security Archive website or in Spanish on